by Joe Harkins (see copyright below)
Nobody shouted, "Thar she blows."
Id figured that at least one of us would sound the whalers traditional call. But we all were too awestruck when the first whale breached clear of the waters only yards away, throwing a rainbow-hued arc of water off its sleek body and forty feet into the air.
Eighteen of us from Puerto Plata and Sosua area hotels were on a fifty-foot cabin cruiser, visiting the breeding and birthing grounds of the humpback whale, one of the largest animals in the world. Earlier in the day we had flown to the Samana airstrip on the newest day-trip offered by Amigo Tours of Puerto Plata. The whales can be seen only from late January through early March.
Whales surrounded us, some so close we could hear the soft whoosh as each came to the surface and expelled a spout of air and water that looked like white smoke. So much a part of the sea, they hardly disturbed the surface except for the occasional explosion of a leap.
Samana fishermen may invite you out in their fragile craft to mingle with the behemoths. The lack of life vests or other safety equipment present the whale-watchers greatest danger but some fishermen and their tourists have been known to harass the whales in ignorance of the harm they may be causing the gentle monsters.
Whales are amazing creatures. They are warm-blooded, air-breathing mammals who, like us humans, nurture their newborn with mothers milk. Before man hunted them so ferociously, there were an estimated 150,000 in the North Atlantic but now there may be as few as 3,000.
Of these, 80 percent winter in the warm waters off the coast of the Dominican Republics Samana Bay. The nearby Bancos de Plata Parque Nacional is the only wildlife preserve in the world devoted to one species. As a result, the Dominican government has the sole responsibility for the protection of the breeding and survival of a major animal.
Given the poor nations limited resources, they are doing an exceptional job. The Silver Banks National Park is off limits during the season, but the close-in area just outside the mouth of Samana Bay is accessible and unrestricted. Once we reached that mark, our tour quickly became exciting. (editorial update a/o early 2001 - with the introduction of strict and strictly enforced rules, a small number of licensed guides are now permitted to operate within the protected area while the whales are there.)
Within minutes after "clearing the bar", that is, crossing the brief stretch of long, slowly rolling swells caused by the sand bars beneath the sheltered waters at the mouth of the bay, we were in hot pursuit of a half-dozen whales in a configuration known to to our guide Kim, as "a rowdy group." The blowing spouts marked their constantly shifting play-ground.
One breeding female and her primary escort of the moment were accompanied by another male whose role it was to press himself against her flank while she and the primary male rotated inward towards each other to permit copulation. When that process is completed, the female then usually accepts the second male while another takes the first ones place and acts as back-stop. Four or five additional males, eager for the turn the female usually permits, surged and leaped about.
The mating activity we saw apparently continues for hours. The females do not seem to object to this constant turmoil around them.
Kim says she has seen as many as twenty males attend and service one female before they are dismissed with a flick of her tail. This information was met with almost sullen disdain by the men in our own group and with sly smiles and elbow poking among the women.
When we arrived at the roiling scene, we found a small, swift, inflated boat darting skillfully in and out among the thrashing whales. It contained three American scientists who were using a "syringe rifle" to nick tissue samples off the whales for genetic studies. (For a long time after this encounter, your reported was unable to identify the researchers. Click photo to to your right enlarge and discover the answer to the mystery, learned 13 years after this article was originally published in 1990).
They briefly halted their work to swing alongside our cruiser and tell us theyd been tracking this "rowdy group" since dawn, some three hours earlier. They then invited us to tag along.
Leaps out of the water by these forty-ton giants are awesome displays of grace and power. At one point, a pair of humpbacks, each the size of our boat, came tail-high up out of the water in a vertical position and slammed belly to belly against each other in the air, completing some maneuver that had begun beneath the waves.
But, despite their size and urgent activity, we do not feel threatened. Its obvious they know we are here. Its also obvious they are studiously ignoring us. As they move about, sometimes passing beneath us as huge dark shadows that dart swiftly in the clear water, they avoid us effortlessly. On more than one occasion, one would move in close on the surface, less than a boat-length away, track us for a few minutes, then shy off without so much as a tail-splash in our direction.
After mating, females leave the area and gestate for a year before returning to these tropical waters to give birth to a one-and-a-half ton calf that drinks fifty gallons of mothers milk per day. The "baby" stays with the mother for another year. During the Caribbean visit in that birth year, mothers and calves stay clear of males and "rowdy fun."
When the mother and year-old calf return to Samana, the mother is again ready for mating. The urgent attentions of the eager males are thought to drive the calf off to independence. By this time the "little one" is usually more than twenty feet long and weighs well over ten tons. By then, its quite able to feed and fend for itself. Only humans are its most dangerous mortal threat.
When the party season ends around mid-March, the males seem to go off in a post-coital funk, each bachelor living alone for almost another year. Some head to the rocky coast of Maine. Others prefer the waters near Iceland or Greenland.
There, in some mysterious fashion, far from the tropical frolics, and even as widely separated from each other, each learns to sing the same mournful song of haunting beauty. They begin their singing hundreds of miles out from the Caribbean and it increases in frequency and intensity as they draw near their destination.
It isnt clear why whales sing but the manner of that singing is unique and awesome. Although the world is filled with animal sounds, almost all animals are programmed to repeat the mating calls of their own species as if they were implanted with a computer chip. Even mimics like the mockingbird and the mina-bird are only repeating, not creating.
Through an entire life, once a bird's mating call is adopted, it does not change. While some of those calls are lyrical they lack the extended notes, expanded themes and melodic lines of song as we humans create, perform and share.
Only two species actually sing; man and whale. Among the whales, only the male sings. Strangely, all sing the same song for one season.
Like an underwater Hit Parade or Top Ten, the song sung in this season is different from the one they all sang the previous year. The one theyll sing next year will also be different, but containing bits and snatches of what they sang the previous year, casually woven into the new calls.
The boat captain played us a tape of one. The complex, long-lined melody is distinctive. Theres no mistaking this is plain-song of a species other than human. The eerie, flowing beauty is primordial and thrilling.
The morning went by quickly. As we turned for port we shared beverages, cookies, oranges, bananas, heeding the environmental caution that we leave all garbage aboard to be taken ashore by the crew.
Just then, the same half-dozen rowdies we had been with most of the time surfaced less than four boat lengths directly ahead. They came straight toward us in a rolling and plunging pack. But we had learned by then not to be afraid.
As they surged to within a body-length of us, they divided into two packs and swept past on both sides. In a grand salute, the last whale did a long slow roll. The distinctive forked tail fin waved above us from only a few feet away. Then it slid gracefully into the next wave barely leaving a ripple.
It was a perfectly timed and perfectly performed piece of theatricality that no theme park could ever hope to replicate. -30-
This article was originally published in The Puerto Plata News, February 9, 1990. See copyright and permissions notice below.
By popular request, here are links (valid
as of December 2005) to information about the whales of Samana and those who
love and protect and nurture them while giving the world an un-obtrusive
look at these magnificent creatures. Some links, previously here, have been
removed for lack of reciprocity.
All Clip File articles are © 1990-2003 by Joe Harkins, all rights reserved. Permission to re-publish or to distribute in any medium is required only from Joe Harkins, not the original publication. Your feedback is welcome.